July 04, 2006

More animals and listening

In the wake of my posting Judith Barrington's poem "Crows", I've been pointed to more things about listening to animals and animals listening to us -- crows, lions, chimpanzees, and of course dogs.

Jeremy Hawker, crow-surrounded in Norway, reminds me of Ted Hughes's fierce book Crow ("From the Life and Songs of the Crow"), where we find

Crow Goes Hunting

Decided to try words.

He imagined some words for the job, a lovely pack--
Clear-eyed, resounding, well-trained,
With strong teeth.
You could not find a better bred lot.

He pointed out the hare and away went the words
Crow was Crow without fail, but what is a hare?

It converted itself to a concrete bunker.
The words circled protesting, resounding.

Crow turned the words into bombs--they blasted the bunker.
The bits of bunker flew up--a flock of starlings.

Crow turned the words into shotguns, they shot down the
The falling starlings turned to a cloudburst.

Crow turned the words into a reservoir, collecting the water.
The water turned into an earthquake, swallowing the

The earthquake turned into a hare and leaped for the hill
Having eaten Crow's words.

Crow gazed after the bounding hare
Speechless with admiration.

Turning from crows to lions (and Wittgenstein), Hawker quotes from John Gray's Straw Dogs, which attacks the belief that humans are different from and superior to animals:

'If a lion could talk, we could not understand him,' the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said.  'It's clear that Wittgenstein hadn't spent much time with lions,' commented the gambler and conservationist John Aspinall.

So, mixed opinions on lions.  What of chimpanzees, gorillas, and their kin, whose linguistic abilities have been scrutinized for forty years or so now?  In 1978 (at the 14th regional meeting of the Chicago Linguistic Society) Mark Seidenberg and Laura Petitto posed the provocative question, "What Do Signing Chimpanzees Have to Say to Linguists?" (a longer article appeared in Cognition the following year, under the title "Signing behavior in apes: A critical review").  Actually, this  is two questions, one about what linguists can learn from observing signing chimpanzees (which is what the article mostly concerns itself with), and one about what signing chimpanzees "say" -- that is, sign -- to linguists and other observers.  Seidenberg and Petitto answer that question on p. 432 of the published paper:

me banana you banana you me me banana

and similar "long, repetitive, continuous sequences" about matters of intense interest to the chimpanzees.

Ok, it's been fun chatting with the chimpanzees, but let's spend some time with those loving, loyal dogs.  (Though dogs get a lot more press than cats in the communication-with-humans department,  googling on "talking cat" will net you a lot of entertaining stuff; still, "talking dog" gets more than ten times the hits.)  Surely, the last word on dogs' UNDERSTANDING of human language comes (as Ray Girvan reminds me) from Gary Larson, in his Far Side cartoon on the subject:

What we say to dogs: Okay, Ginger!  I've had it!  You stay out of the garbage!  Understand, Ginger?  Stay out of the garbage, or else!

What they hear: blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah...

[So it turns out Girvan had a different Larson cartoon in mind -- one in which Professor Milton invents a device that translates from Dog to English, and goes down a street full of barking dogs, only to discover that they are all saying "Hey hey hey hey hey hey..."]

Larson is dubious, but Dan Piraro, in a recent Bizarro cartoon (5/30/06), thinks some dogs can do a lot better, and can tell us about it.  In this cartoon, a sizable dog confronts a young man sitting on a couch.  The dog has his front paws on the couch, and the man is shrinking back in some alarm.  The dog complains:

Wanna watch some TV?  Do ya, boy?  Do ya?  Wanna watch some TV?  Huh, boy?

Do you see how PATRONIZING that is?!

A nice counterpart to the chimps' long repetitive sequences of signs.

And now I think I'll go off the Language Log Plaza Talking Animal Watch for a while.  I've seen too many cats saying "Mama!"  And Bill Poser has reported to us on the potentially dire consequences of listening to cats.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 4, 2006 12:10 PM